A Different Path: Building on Community Strengths

By Devin Vodicka

When we recall powerful growth experiences in our lives it is not hard to identify our purpose, participants, and feedback.  We can think about these three elements at the individual and at the collective level and it is at the collective level where leadership occurs. 

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

In my first month as a new school administrator our school was identified as one of the lowest-performing in the state of California.  This was in 1999 which was prior to the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act and we be were in the first wave of schools in what was called the “Immediate Intervention/Underperforming Schools Program” (II/USP) which included many of the same punitive sanctions that we would soon see enacted across the nation through NCLB.  We were given one year to conduct a needs assessment and to develop plans and if test scores did not improve in the second year the principal would be fired.  If scores didn’t improve under new leadership the entire staff could be reassigned or the school could be closed.  

The school was Jefferson Elementary in Carlsbad along the coast in Northern San Diego. Years before my arrival, a desegregation mandate had led the district to designate Jefferson as an arts-focused, dual-language school in an attempt to attract white students into the predominantly Latino community.  We had a very dedicated team of educators and families held a high level of respect for the school. The desegregation program also brought funds to the site that had been used for art specialists, music teachers, and a physical education teacher. In addition, the school had a well-equipped computer lab and library and classrooms periodically rotated through those spaces. 

The II/USP designation was a shock to the identity of the school. As a rookie administrator, I was amazed and inspired by how the principal, Carol Van Vooren, saw the moment as a window of opportunity to improve. We took the initiative to do a thorough self-assessment, incorporating feedback from teachers and from the community, and soon found out that the result of well-intended special programs had led to a very disjointed experience for the students. The specialists which brought amazing experiences to the students were mostly part-timers who worked two or three days per week and they had been given the latitude to create their own schedules.  As a result, it became very difficult for teachers to collaborate because their time was impacted by the irregularity of the special programs.  In addition, any sort of extended block of time that could be used for deep learning was a rarity as students were frequently transitioning to and from the special programs.  

We engaged the educators in a process to reimagine the schedule from a student perspective and shifted to a model that included an uninterrupted literacy block for the entire school that also leveraged the special programs to create collaborative planning and professional learning opportunities for teams of teachers.  To their credit, the specialists flexed their own calendars to be in service to the idea of a more efficient schedule for students.  

The new schedule allowed us to intensify our focus on early literacy and to improve professional collaboration.  The principal was also confident that continuing with the whole-child approach and a strong focus on the arts would result in improvements in test scores.  She was right.  Within a short period of time Jefferson Elementary was included in a study called “Beating the Odds” that featured high-poverty, high-minority, high minority schools.  The school also earned awards as a California High Achieving Title I School. 

Broadly speaking, the Jefferson learning community developed a shared purpose through these experiences by focusing on school improvement.  Participation from community members and educators informed the needs assessment as well as the plan for making changes.  Feedback came in the form of validation from students, staff, and families as well as the gains that we saw in test score results.  

More than two decades later it is safe to say that we have all learned a great deal about the adverse effects of optimizing around test scores which tend to include a narrowing of the curriculum as well as increasing standardization and reliance on instructional materials that were developed by large publishing companies.  What is interesting about the Jefferson story is that we took a different path, one that better resembles a living systems approach, which built on the strengths of the community and engaged a broad group of stakeholders to meaningfully work together in service to our learners.  The success at Jefferson, as well as many others that I have seen during my career, reinforces my belief that true change is possible and that a whole-child approach is foundational for success by any measure. 

When we see the world as a living system that can not be controlled in an orderly fashion, we then shift our thinking away from an “outside-in” approach to an “inside-out” model.  At both an individual and an organizational level, real growth comes from purpose, participation, and feedback.

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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